The People's Choice
TWO YEARS AGO, politics in Ukraine seemed to be a battle between good and evil. Now the picture is more complicated. The good guy is president, but the bad guy is likely to become the next prime minister. Some say it's a failure of democracy. We disagree.
In the uproar after Ukraine's 2004 presidential election, there were clear principles at stake. Viktor Yanukovich, the Russia-backed candidate, tried to steal the presidential election through massive voting fraud. His pro-West opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, nearly died after a poison attack that no one has yet explained. Ukraine's weak democratic institutions were crumbling under the weight of election rigging and political violence. Massive popular demonstrations forced a rerun of the presidential race and ultimately kept a vote-rigger out of the presidential palace.
But since then, Mr. Yushchenko and his Orange coalition have faltered. The government has had to face Russian bullying and a bevy of domestic problems while the momentum of revolution waned. In March's parliamentary elections, the party of Mr. Yanukovich claimed the most seats. And after months of parliamentary wrangling, he won the nomination for prime minister last week.
It's not an outcome the West will like; Mr. Yanukovich as prime minister will do his best to keep Ukraine in Moscow's orbit. Even if he doesn't get the parliament's top job, which is still a possibility given the volatility of Ukrainian politics, Mr. Yanukovich will rank among the most influential politicians in government. It is tempting to wish that Ukraine's president would call for new parliamentary elections, a move he called a last resort on Saturday, in the hope that a pro-West coalition would get more seats.
But Ukrainians elected the current parliament only three months ago, and there was no evidence of widespread vote tampering. The emerging political settlement in Ukraine reflects the current divisions within the country, which has a large ethnic Russian population in the east, Mr. Yanukovich's natural constituency, and a fierce Ukrainian nationalist movement in the west, Mr. Yushchenko's power base. It should be no surprise that the leader of the parliament might represent one end of the country and the president the other. The continued political instability that new elections would cause and the distrust in the east that they would encourage wouldn't help cement Ukraine's democratic institutions.
This is a chance for the United States and Europe to show that they favor democracy first, not a particular democratic outcome in a single parliamentary election. That means being ready to support Ukraine's aspirations to join NATO or to assist Mr. Yushchenko in claiming energy independence from Russia -- if the Ukrainian government asks. Providing an attractive alternative to Russian domination through deference to the democratic process and willingness to act in partnership with Ukraine will further the West's cause much more than would a pliant pro-West parliament.
Mr. Yanukovich may not be the prime minister we would have voted for. But we respect the honest choice Ukrainians made.